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THE TENNIS COURT OATH. 1
PROBABLY in no period of history is the temptation to
exaggerate the importance of dramatic events by a false
isolation so great as in the early years of the French Revolu-
tion. This tendency renders the reconstruction or reinterpre-
tation of the history of this epoch especially necessary. Until
Professor H. Morse Stephens published his excellent book,
the English-reading public had relied pretty exclusively upon
Carlyle's picture of events. Carlyle's account, notwithstand-
ing its poetic brilliancy, is in one sense quite conventional.
With all his broadmindedness, he makes little effort to re-state
events in new relations or from any other than the traditional
standpoint. The Tennis Court oath is to him, as to most
other historians, a picturesque incident associated with a court
intrigue. No attempt has been made, as far as I am aware,
to assign to this event its proper place in the great and irre-
sistible current of advance. It is, after all, but recently that
writers of history have recognized as their chief task the pains-
taking investigation of the often obscure causal relations of
events — the tracing of gradual and inevitable development
where phenomena have previously been treated only as spas-
modic and erratic. It is with this in view that I shall try to
sketch out the history of the Tennis Court oath of June 20,
1789, by which the deputies of the French people bound
themselves to give France a constitution, and shall attempt
to show that the incident was not the unpremeditated out-
come of an invasion of carpenters, "hammering, sawing and
operative screeching," but that the events of June 20 consti-
tuted in reality only a slight although politically important
advance beyond the state of affairs on June 19.
During the months of May and June a momentous constitu-
1 This paper is based upon one prepared for the meeting of the American His-
torical Association, December, 1894.
THE TENNIS COURT OATH. 46 1
tional change had been taking place in France. The old
feudal assembly of the three orders, reassembled after an
interval of one hundred and seventy-five years, was found, in
spite of the studiously antiquated dress of its members, to
have undergone a significant change since last it met. No
royal edict could re-create the spirit of earlier centuries. The
inevitable metamorphosis into a modern representative body
took place during the succeeding weeks, notwithstanding the
opposition of the conservative elements. It was finally de-
cided by the court to suspend the sessions of the three orders,
and this, as appeared to the third estate, with disrespectful if
not suspicious abruptness. The pretext for the prorogation
was that, as the king was to address the estates a day or
two later, the spacious general meeting-place of the orders,
which the representatives of the third estate had utilized since
May 5, must be prepared for the royal session.
On finding the place of assembly occupied by the carpen-
ters, the representatives of the third estate gathered in the
Tennis Court of Versailles and adopted the following resolu-
The National Assembly, regarding itself as called upon to estab-
lish the constitution of the kingdom, effect a regeneration of the
state (I'ordre public) and maintain the true principles of monarchy,
may not be prevented from continuing its deliberations in whatever
place it may be forced to take up its sittings. Maintaining further,
that wherever its members are assembled, there is the National
Assembly, the assembly decrees that all its members shall imme-
diately take a solemn oath never to separate and to come together
wherever circumstances may dictate until the constitution of the
kingdom shall be established and placed upon a firm foundation. 1
The importance of this resolution lies in the fact that it was
the first distinct and formal assertion of the assembly's
mission. A resolution had been passed three days before
(June 1 7) by which the deputies of the third estate had as-
sumed the title of " National Assembly." The deputies had,
moreover, taken an oath upon this same seventeenth of June
1 Histoire Parlementaire, vol. ii, p. 3.
462 POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY. [Vol. X.
very like the Tennis Court oath itself : " We swear and pledge
ourselves to fulfill with zeal and fidelity the duties which
devolve upon us." "This oath," we are told, "taken by six
hundred members, surrounded by four thousand spectators (the
public having gathered in crowds at this session), excited the
greatest emotion, and constituted a most imposing specta-
cle." 1 Apparently all that is novel in the Tennis Court
oath is the clear enunciation that the establishment of the
constitution is the essential task of the assembly.
No adequate account appears to have been given of the de-
velopment of this idea of a constitution. That it was not new
on the morning of June 20, 1 789, is obvious. The unanimous
recognition on the part of the deputies that the true object of
the assembly was the establishment of a constitution, is quite
sufficient to prove that the public mind was ripe for this dec-
laration. It is my purpose to indicate in a brief and general
way the steps by which the French nation attained to a clear
conviction that the salvation of the country depended upon the
distinct formulation of the principles of government — a con-
viction which received its first official announcement in the
Tennis Court oath.
The motives advanced by the king and ministers for convok-
ing the Estates General had been but vaguely conceived and
therefore but vaguely indicated in the Letter of Summons,
January 24, 1789. 2 "We have," the document relates, "need
of the counsel of our faithful subjects to aid us in overcoming
all the difficulties in which we are involved respecting the
state of our finances, and to establish according to our wishes
a constant and invariable order in the various parts of the
government which affect the happiness of our subjects and
the prosperity of our kingdom." The phrase "fixed and con-
stant order in all parts of the administration " occurs three
times in this brief document as one of the great objects
which the Estates General in conjunction with the king
are expected to accomplish. Necker's report to the king,
1 Histoire Parlementaire, vol. i, p. 471.
2 Archives Partem entaires, vol. i, pp. 543, 544.
No. 3-] THE TENNIS COURT OATH. 463
issued a month previous to the actual summoning of the
estates, although claiming to reflect the inmost purposes of
the monarch, really does little to define the vague terms used
in the letter of convocation itself. Necker says nothing of a
constitution, but seems to take for granted that the Estates
General are to be regularly and periodically convened in the
future; while the worst abuses are to be done away with and
the administration improved. 1 No farther program was fur-
nished by the government until the king submitted an elabo-
rate and interesting plan of reform in thirty-five articles 2 at
the royal session, three days after the Tennis Court oath.
The ideas of reform vaguely advanced by the government
had taken a much more definite shape, however, in the minds
of the leading spirits in the nation at large, and had developed
into the matured conception of constitution some time before
the assembling of the Estates General. A remarkable forecast
of the ideas which later became the basis of constitutional
revolution is to be found in the remontrances of the parlements
issued from time to time during the eighteenth century. These
superior courts of France had formulated the theory of a con-
stitution long before the revolution, and had, moreover, taken
great pains to familiarize the public with the idea. 3
Considering the inherently close connection between the
legislative and the judicial functions of government, it is not
strange that a proud and self-conscious body like the parlement
of Paris should have been inclined to define its duties broadly
and extend its influence so as to exercise a certain control
over the formation of the law. This tendency was rendered
1 Archives Parlementaires, vol. i, pp. 489 ff., especially pp. 496-7.
2 Histoire Parlementaire, vol. ii, pp. i6ff.
8 The study of this interesting but neglected phase of the constitutional his-
tory of France will be greatly facilitated by the publication of the " Remontrances
du Parlement de Paris au XVIIIe Siecle," which are being excellently edited by
M. Jules Flammermont in the great series of Documents Inedits. The first vol-
ume only of this collection has appeared (1888), covering the period 1715-1753.
The editor furnishes a valuable introduction, in which the position and preten-
sions of the court are carefully discussed. For the later period of the parlements'
existence the present writer has, through the courtesy of the librarian, been
enabled to utilize a number of contemporaneous editions of the Remontrances
preserved in the White Library of Cornell University.
464 POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY. [Vol. X.
almost inevitable by a custom which had long existed of per-
mitting the courts to protest against, and demand a reconsid-
eration of, kingly edicts when presented to them for registra-
tion. This anomalous right of participation in legislation
was stoutly defended by the parlement, the arguments advanced
being based not only upon precedent, but upon justice and
expediency as well. The attempts of the king and his minis-
ters to force the court to register edicts against its will pro-
duced serious crises. On these occasions the despotic character
of the French monarchy and the problem of the exact nature
of the legislative act 1 were brought prominently before the
In order to support their contingent opposition to the wishes
of the king, whom they recognized freely enough as the su-
preme law-giver, the courts put forward the theory of a con-
stitution. They assume the guardianship of the " lots funda-
mentales " of the monarchy. It devolves upon them, they claim,
to maintain the constitution of the kingdom and to see that
no fundamental maxims are violated. This constitution was
perhaps ill-defined, and was comprised in no accepted written
code ; nevertheless, the courts very properly pointed out that
it was only by continuing to observe certain venerable usages
that France could be said to enjoy a regular legal government
at all. As they once bluntly told Louis XV : " Adulation
itself would not dare to assert that in every case anything
that the king wills becomes forthwith a law of the monarchy." 2
The parlements appear to have been conscious, however, that
their claims rested at best upon a somewhat precarious founda-
tion. They never venture to give a complete or even extended
enumeration of the "fundamental laws " of the monarchy. For
the vagueness of their pretensions they seek to compensate by
solemn reiteration. 3
1 " La solemnite sacramentelle de la legislation francoise," as it is called by the
Parlement of Paris, Remontrances of June 18, 1763, p. 14.
2 Remontrance of Pari, of Brittany, July, 1771.
8 " Le Parlement sent bien la fragilite des droits qu'il reclame et il deguise la
faiblesse de ses pretentions sous des affirmations vagues qu'il developpe dans un
langage solennel." Flammermont, op. cit, I, xxxi.
No. 3.] THE TENNIS COURT OATH. 465
Notwithstanding the obvious want of definiteness in the
theories of the parlements, there is much in the widely circu-
lated remontrances, beginning with that of May, 1716, which
could not but leave a deep impression upon a public that was
becoming more and more conscious of the abuses and dangers
of absolutism. The successive conflicts between the superior
courts and the king's ministers, important as they were in cul-
tivating a spirit of general discontent, cannot be considered
here. 1 We must confine ourselves to the stimulus given by
the parlements to the growing demands in the eighteenth cen-
tury for a limitation of the king's powers.
The following statement of the parlement' 's case, made some
seventy years before the Tennis Court oath, contains a sum-
mary of the claims which are separately developed at greater
length in the various manifestoes of that body:
While we recognize, Sire, that you alone are lord and master and
the sole lawgiver, and that there are laws which varying times, the
needs of your people, the maintenance of order and the administra-
tion of your kingdom may oblige you to change, substituting new
ones according to the forms always observed in this state, we never-
theless believe it to be our duty to call to your attention the exist-
ence of laws as old as the monarchy, which are permanent and
invariable, the guardianship of which was committed to you along
with the crown itself. ... It is by reason of the permanence of
such laws that we have you as lord and master. It is this perma-
nence which leads us to hope that the crown, having rested upon
your head during a long, just and glorious reign, will pass to your
posterity for all time to come.
In recent times [the parlement adds] it has been clearly shown
how much France owes to the maintenance of these original laws of
the state, and how important it is in the service of your Majesty
that your parlement, which is responsible to you and to the nation
for their exact observation, should assiduously guard against any
attack upon them. 2
1 The significance of these struggles is excellently explained by Rocquain in
his admirable work, Esprit Revolutionnaire avant la Revolution.
2 Iteratives Remontrances sur la Refonte des Monnaies, July 26, 17 18. Flam-
mermont's collection, pp. 88 ff ., especially pp. 94, 95.
466 POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY. [Vol. X.
Even Louis XIV, the parlement claims, regarded that body as
"the real guardian of the fundamental laws of the kingdom,
and even the most absolute of the kings had accepted the reg-
istration by the parlement as a necessary condition for the
enactment of a law." x
The superior tribunals, especially the parlement of Paris,
are thus placed upon the same footing as the monarch himself.
They both exist in virtue of the same fundamental or constitu-
tional laws. Thus, "la constitution la plus essentielle et la
plus sacree de la monarchic," 2 as conceived by the magistrates,
provided not only for a king with "fortunate inabilities," 3 but
for tribunals which had a right to cooperate in legislation. 4
Both owed their existence to the same imprescriptible law by
which the kings themselves were kings. 6
The so-called " Grandes Remontrances" of 1753 discuss at
length the relation of the will of the sovereign to the law of
1 IteVatives Remontrances sur la Refonte des Monnaies, pp. 95, 96.
2 Remontrance of June 18, 1763, p. 16.
8 " Bienheureuse impuissance," a constantly recurring quotation from the
" Droits de la Reine sur divers fitats de la Monarchie de l'Espagne," supposed to
have been inspired by Louis XIV.
* " Que toute administration dans l'e'tat est fondee sur des Loix, et qu'il n'en
est aucune sans un enregistrement libre, precede de verification et d'examen, que
cette verification est necessaire pour donner a toutes les Loix ce caractere d'authen-
ticite, auquel les peuples reconnoissent l'autorite qui doit les conduire," etc. Ex-
trait des registres du Parlement, January 2, 1760, p. 13. See also Remontrance
of June 18, 1763, passim.
6 The Parlement asserts, in a remontrance of June 18, 1763: "Que de mSme
que le souverain est l'auteur et le protecteur des Loix, de meme les Loix sont la
base et les garants de l'autorite du Souverain ; et que toute atteinte portee aux
Loix retombe plus ou moins directement sur le Souverain lui-m6me. Que mecon-
noitre l'existence ou la force irrefragable de Loix immuables par leur nature,
constitutives de l'economie de l'etat, ce seroit ebranler la solidite du Trone meme.
Que suivant les expressions du Premier President de son Parlement, parlant a
l'un des augustes Predecesseurs dudit Seigneur Roi, 'les Loix de l'etat et du
Royaume ne peuvent 6tres violees sans revoquer en doubt la Puissance mSme et
la Souverainete dudit Seigneur Roi. Que nous avons deux sortes de loix ; les
unes sont les Ordonnances des Rois, qui se peuvent changer selon la diversite
des tems et des affaires ; les autres sont les Ordonnances du Royaume, qui sont
inviolables, et par lesquelles ledit Seigneur Roi est monte au Tr&ne royal, et cette
Couronne a ete conservee par ses predecesseurs jusqu'a lui.'" This last quota-
tion the court derived from a speech made by Harlai before the king, June 1 5,
No. 3.] THE TENNIS COURT OATH. 467
the land. The subjection of the kingly will to law is clearly
set forth, and the theory is supported by a variety of some-
what startling quotations culled from the political literature
of Louis XIV's reign. 1 This remonstrance of 1753, dealing
with the refusal of the sacraments, closes the long struggle
growing out of the bull Unigenitus. The succeeding conflicts
between parlement and ministry turn on other matters. The
popularity-loving magistrates, susceptible to the spirit of the
times, learn to give a democratic or at least popular tone to
their declarations. The terms nation, people and citoyen occur
more and more frequently in the expostulations with the king.
We can easily perceive the growing antagonism of the nation
towards an unlimited or ill defined royal power. The clearest
and most mature statement of the theory of a constitution
which I have found occurs in an obscure remonstrance ad-
dressed to the king by the parlement of Brittany, dated July,
There is an essential difference between the transitory regulations
which vary with the times, and the fundamental laws upon which the
constitution of the monarchy rests. In respect to the former [that
is, the transitory regulations], it is the duty of the courts to influence
and enlighten the ruling power (I'autorite), although their opinions
must, in the last instance, yield to the decisions of your wisdom,
since it appertains to you alone to regulate everything relating to
the administration. To administer the state is not, however, to
change its constitution. ... It is, therefore, most indispensable to
distinguish or to except the cases where the right of expostulation
suffices to enlighten the ruling power in an administration which,
in spite of its wide scope, still has its limits, and those cases where
the happy inability [of the monarch] to overstep the bounds estab-
lished by the constitution implies the power necessary legally to
oppose what an arbitrary will cannot and may not do.
While this is obviously an ex parte argument with a view to
justifying the pretensions of the courts, it is a remarkable
approximation to the later ideas of a constitution as distin-
guished from current statutory legislation. Not only was the
word constitution familiar to the thoughtful Frenchman many
1 Flammermont, I, 521 ff.
468 POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY. [Vol. X.
years before the Revolution, but the idea which underlies the
modern conception of a constitutional government was ready
That the superior courts represented the nation since the
disappearance of the Estates General, was perhaps the basis of
the claim which the parlement ventured to make upon the sym-
pathy of the public. 1 It was the parlement of Paris which,
July 1 6, 1787, requested that the Estates General be again
convoked, " considerant que la Nation representee par les etats-
gdn^raux est seule en droit d'octroyer au Roi les subsides n6ces-
saires." 2 This demand, passed by a strange coalition of
radicals and conservatives who held opposite views of the
meaning of their action, was the beginning of the end. After
a brief period of popularity the parlements disappear forever,
with a last dignified protest in which they sadly lament the
outcome of a movement which they had themselves so materi-
ally hastened. 3
There is a natural temptation to attribute to our own insti-
tutions a very considerable influence upon the growth of the
idea of a constitution in France. Apparently the earliest col-
lection of our state constitutions ever made was destined for
French readers. 4 These documents attracted the attention of
thoughtful Frenchmen, and we have the comments of Turgot, 5
Mably, 6 and, later, the extensive work of Jefferson's friend,
1 " Ce peuple avoit autrefois la consolation de presenter ses doleances aux
Rois vos predecesseurs ; mais depuis un siecle et un demi les etats n'ont point
ete convoques. Jusqu'a ce jour au moins la reclamation des Cours suppleoit a
celle des etats, quoiqu'imparfaitement." Remontrances de la Cour des Aides,
February 18, 1771. See also the famous remonstrance of the same court issued
2 Arre'te du 30 Juillet, 1787.
3 The last remonstrance of the Parlement of Paris is printed by Mortimer.
Ternaux, Histoire de la Terreur, I, pp. 306, 307. See Pasquier's Memoirs
(American edition), I, 70-74, and 98 ff.
4 Recueil des loix constitutives des colonies angloises confederees sous la
denomination d'Etats-Unis de l'Amerique septentrionale, traduit de l'anglois.
A Philadelphie et se vend a Paris, chez Cellot et Jombert, 1778. Library of
Penn. Hist. Soc.
5 Adams wrote his " Defence " in answer to Turgot's strictures, which may be
found in the latter's works.
6 Observations sur le gouvernement et les loix des Etats-Unis de l'Amerique,
1st ed., 1784.
No. 3-] THE TENNIS COURT OATH. 469
Mazzei, 1 who is said to have been aided by Condorcet. The
bills of rights prefacing a number of our early state constitu-
tions are constantly referred to in the debates upon the Decla-
ration of the Rights of Man, August, 1789. The experience
of the United States may well have added somewhat to the
precision and vigor of an already well developed movement
towards constitutional reform ; more weight than this cannot,
I think, be ascribed to foreign example. 2
The French, long conscious of the abuses of their system
of government, and anxious to insure their liberties by limit-
ing the prerogatives of their monarch, turned their minds
naturally and inevitably to a species of written guarantee which
should give definiteness to the chief fundamental laws of the
state. The very insistence placed upon the declaration of
the rights of man showed that the people had in view a
charter in the English sense of the word rather than an
elaborately wrought out constitution, like that of 1791.
" No one denies now," Mirabeau once remarked with charac-
teristic insight, 3 " that the French nation was prepared for the
revolution which has just taken place rather through a con-
sciousness of its ills and the faults of its government than by
the general advance of knowledge. Every one was conscious
of what should be destroyed; no one knew what should be
established." The proof of this is found in the pamphlets
of the time, but especially in the great collection of cahiers.
As was most natural, the determination of the king to sum-
mon the Estates General called forth a great number of
pamphlets, especially in the latter half of the year 1788.
These corresponded in function to the modern newspaper,
which very quickly developed from them. While they dealt
very largely with the question of the number of representatives
1 Recherches Historiques et Politiques sur les fitats-Unis de l'Amerique sep-
tentrionale, par un Citoyen de Virginie. Paris, 1788, 4 vols. See Sabin., Bib. Am.,
2 Mr. Rosenthal has collected a great deal upon this subject in his careful work,
America and France: Influence of the United States on France in the 18th Century
3 Twenty-third note to the court in the correspondence with Lamarck.
470 POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY. [Vol. X.
and with the method of voting in the assembly, some took up
the work which the Estates General had before it. That of
Si6yes is well known, and its author occupied an authoritative
position in the assembly from the first. A less-known pam-
phlet, published anonymously, but attributed with good reason
to Rabaut St. Etienne, the most radical perhaps of the more
influential speakers in the assembly before June 20, is ana-
lyzed in the Introduction to the Moniteur} This brochure,
published a year before the Tennis Court oath, sets forth the
necessity of establishing a constitution.
So long as the changing and arbitrary form of your administra-
tion continues to exist [the author urges], so long will the ministers
to whom your interests are temporarily confided be in a position to
overturn the established order, modify or abrogate the laws and
regulations made by their predecessors, while all your efforts to
correct the abuses and better your situation will be futile and with-
out permanent results.
In determining the principles of a good constitution, while
the author speaks of those of Switzerland and of the United
States, he evidently recognizes that England after all furnishes
the most feasible model. The constitution ought, he holds, to
provide for two houses of legislation, a separation of the powers
of government, ministerial responsibility, security of person
and property, liberty of the press, etc., — a complete program,
extracted in a measure no doubt from Montesquieu. So far,
however, as I have examined the pamphlets of the times, —
and a considerable collection is available in the Library of the
Pennsylvania Historical Society, — the one just described seems
to be exceptional. As Sorel says : " The French were much
more anxious for civil than for political liberty." We find a
great deal more discussion of financial oppression and of the
existing social and economic abuses than of a proposed political
or constitutional re-organization.
The same tendency is apparent in the cahiers. Still these
indicate a very general if not practically universal desire that
1 A la Nation Francoise, sur les Vices de son Gouvernement, sur la Necessite
d'etablir une Constitution et sur la Composition des Etats-Generaux. Archives
Parlementaires, vol. i, pp. 572—3.
No. 3-] THE TENNIS COURT OATH. 471
the despotic government of the Bourbons should cease. To
take an example at random from one of the cahiers of the
clergy, we find, article 1, this statement: "The fundamental
[constitutives] laws of the nation ought not to be based upon
doubtful and obscure traditions, but established upon a solid
foundation, to wit, justice and the good of the people." Noth-
ing is to be done in the assembly of the Estates General, the
cahier declares, " until the rights of the nation are solemnly
recognized and determined. A charter containing these shall
be drawn up, in which they shall be formally and irrevocably
inscribed." x This is characteristically vague, and, taking the
orders throughout, represents the average minimum demand.
Every one seemed to feel that the desired civil rights and free-
dom could only be secured by establishing so much of a consti-
tution as would insure the periodic meetings of the Estates
General. This participation of the nation in the exercise of
legislative power would prevent oppression, if the rights of the
individual were once defined, and solemnly and irrevocably
reduced to writing. Such a course was not regarded as im-
plying any radical innovations. In fact, in the case of some
of the cahiers of the noblesse the desire appears to have been
to secure their own special privileges, which they regarded as
fundamental laws. These, if reduced to writing, were, it was
argued, not so likely to be questioned in the future as they
had been of recent years. Taine's assertion 2 that the nobility
in general held with Montesquieu that France had a constitu-
tion, is not, however, borne out by the cahiers? although there
are some instances which give countenance to this view.
The general desire for some security for the maintenance of
the fundamental rights of person and property takes a more
definite form in certain urban cahiers, for example in that of
the se'ne'chausse'e of Lyons :
Since arbitrary power has been the source of all the evils which
afflict the state, our first desire is the establishment of a really
1 Senechaussee de Mans, Archives Pari., Ill, 637.
2 Cf. Sieves, Ancien Regime, p. 422.
8 This is pointed out by Champion in his introduction to Sieves' pamphlet, ix,
472 POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY. [Vol. X.
national constitution, which shall define the rights of all and provide
the laws to maintain them. Consequently our representatives shall
request the Estates General to decree and His Majesty to sanction
a strictly constitutional law, the chief aims of which shall be as fol-
lows : [a list of fourteen articles are enumerated, concluding with
the provision that] since in no society can any happiness be hoped
for without a good constitution (une bonne constitution), the Province
of the Lyonnais recommends its deputies to discuss no other sub-
ject until the French constitution shall be fixed by the Estates
Among the cahiers that of Paris intra muros forms a marked
exception to the general vagueness. It was drawn up later
than the rest, not being completed until after May 5, the day
upon which the Estates General met. The committee appointed
to draft the cahier included a number of distinguished men:
Marmontel, Lacretelle, Bailly, Target, Camus and others. 2
The result of their deliberations is the most complete scheme
of a constitution which appeared before that drawn up in the
National Assembly itself. The first division of the cahier is
devoted to this subject, and the representatives of Paris "are
expressly forbidden to consent to any subsidy or loan until the
declaration of the rights of the nation shall have become a
law, and the foundations of a constitution are agreed upon and
assured." The draft of the constitution is preceded, like that
actually decreed later in the National Assembly, by a declara-
tion of rights, which the cahier claims should " constitute a
national charter and form the basis of the French govern-
ment." No other cahier, so far as I have observed, except
that of the bailliage of Nemours, 3 contains so clear a statement
1 Archives Pari., Ill, 608, 609.
2 Stephens' French Revolution, vol. i, p. 50.
8 The third estate of the bailliage of Nemours charges its deputies to de-
mand that when the Estates General shall have recognized and set forth those
natural and social rights of man and of the citizen, the king shall draw up a dec-
laration which shall be registered by all the courts, published several times a year
in all the churches, and inserted in all the books destined for the instruction of the
earliest childhood. No one shall be admitted or appointed to any judicial, magis-
terial or administrative office without having repeated this declaration from
memory. A more elaborate draft of a declaration is furnished by Nemours than
by Paris itself.
No. 3.] THE TENNIS COURT OATH. 473
of this characteristic idea that the declaration of rights is an
essential element of the constitution. Not only was this
suggestion accepted by the National Assembly, which, as is
well known, formulated the " Declaration of the Rights of
Man and the Citizen " before proceeding to the constitution
itself, but the clauses themselves as they appear in this cahier
of Paris are strikingly similar to those finally adopted by the
assembly. The importance of the well-ordered constitutional
provisions suggested in the cahier can best be estimated by
their close approach to those of the constitution of 179 1. I
quote a few instances of articles proposed by the Paris elec-
In the French monarchy the legislative power belongs to the na-
tion in conjunction with the king. The executive power belongs to
the king alone.
The Estates General shall be periodically convoked every three
years, without, however, excluding extraordinary sessions. They
shall never adjourn without indicating the day and place of their
Any one convicted of an attempt to prevent the assembling of the
Estates General shall be declared a traitor to his country, guilty of
the crime of lese-nation \_sic!~\.
In the intervals between the sessions of the Estates General, only
provisional regulations may be issued in execution of that which has
been decreed in the preceding Estates General, nor can these regu-
lations be made laws, except in the following Estates General.
Many more examples might be given to illustrate the similarity
between this sketch and the plan ultimately adopted. The
cahier claims that
the constitution which shall be drawn up in the present Estates
General, according to the principles which have just been set forth,
shall be the property of the nation, and may not be changed or
modified except by the constituent power, that is to say, by the
nation itself, or by its representatives elected ad hoc by the whole
body of citizens for the single purpose of supplementing or perfect-
ing this constitution.
There was an attempt made during the week preceding the
Tennis Court oath to induce the National Assembly, as it now
474 POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY.
called itself, to pass a decree in which the formation of a con-
stitution was designated as one of the great objects to be
attained. Mirabeau claimed that the king himself had recog-
nized " the necessity of giving France a fixed method of gov-
ernment," 1 and consequently regarded the laying of "the
foundations of the wise and felicitous constitution " as the
inevitable and obvious duty of the assembly. 2 Rabaut de St.
Etienne, in a series of resolutions offered on the 1 5th of June,
occupies the same position. 3 On the 17th of June the assem-
bly finally defined its constitutional functions in a vaguer form
as "the determination of the principles of national regenera-
tion." 4 Thus, although the representatives of the third estate
were chiefly occupied before June 20 with the questions as to
the method of voting and the relation of their order to the other
two orders, the great question of the constitution was not lost
sight of. If the Tennis Court oath was the first official decla-
ration of the purpose of the assembly, it was the inevitable
outcome of preceding conditions, and was in fact only a
re-statement of the resolution adopted by the assembly several
days before (June 17).
It would thus seem clear that the conviction of the necessity
for France of a written constitution was not due to any sudden
crisis, but was, on the contrary, the outcome of a long period
of preparation, during which one essentially conservative influ-
ence, at least, that of the superior courts, did much to insure
the success of a movement with which they could, at bottom,
have little sympathy. It is apparent, too, that relatively little
weight should be ascribed to outside example, since the influ-
ence of foreign experience sinks into insignificance, as it cus-
tomarily does upon careful investigation, in comparison with
the irresistible tendencies in France itself during the eight-
eenth century towards a constitutional form of government.
James Harvey Robinson.
1 Histoire Parlementaire, vol. i, p. 445.
2 Ibid., p. 453. 3 Ibid., p. 457. * Ibid., p. 472.